How To Innovate In A Low-Tech Industry

IT manager at family-owned Bremen Castings discusses how the firm capitalizes on new technology in the old-fashioned foundry business.

Kevin Casey

May 1, 2013

5 Min Read
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Want to run an innovative IT shop? It helps when the Powers That Be build the company around technology.

That's the case at Bremen Castings, a foundry and machine company based in Bremen, Ind. The 300-person firm makes metal and ferrous castings, and performs additional processing -- milling, grinding, manufacturing -- to produce finished product rather than only raw materials.

The industry isn't generally known for its early adoption of information technologies. Rather, it's somewhat old-fashioned in that regard, according to Bremen's IT manager, Darrin Sweet.

Not so at Bremen, which runs IT as a competitive advantage rather than a service-and-support organization. "We're using technology to the Nth degree," Sweet said in an interview. "That's a far different stance than what our competitors are doing throughout the country and throughout the world."

[ Mobile tech is big with SMBs -- but what about measuring results? Read SMBs Love Mobile, Struggle On Strategy. ]

Sweet described Bremen's IT portfolio: "Gigabit all the way through to the desktop, fiber-optic local area network, standard high-availability VMware infrastructure with high-availability storage and presence on the network -- pretty straightforward as far as networking goes."

Bremen recently began rolling out Citrix virtual desktops to its employees and is now at about 40% thin clients. There's a mix of terminal server, terminal services, and "fat" clients, too. The company has become the flagship user of its industry-specific ERP system; other companies model their own deployments after Bremen's.

Mobility is "huge," according to Sweet -- iPads and iPhones are in regular use throughout the business, and they're always looking at ways to shrink hardware size when possible. Remote access and connectivity across devices and systems is also a must. Bremen relies on state-of-the-art security systems to protect both its physical plant and its network and other IT assets.

And we haven't even gotten into the cool stuff -- robotic grinders, anyone?

It's all part of an organization where IT is very much woven into the corporate fabric. Sweet is in a sense lucky: Three generations of family ownership have treated tech as a priority rather than an afterthought. "The owners are very technically savvy people," Sweet said. "It's not just networking and computers and whatnot -- we also have video security, passcard access systems, electronic timeclock systems, and that type of thing. [IT] isn't just for production manufacturing. Technology is permeated throughout the entire company, and that's primarily owner-driven."

Proving return on technology investments is another relatively pain-free area. "In our environment, it's very easy to do a ROI proof-of-concept," Sweet said. "It just comes down to labor hours -- two people doing the job of five [for example]. It's very easy to quantify the ROI and cost savings with technology -- or disproving it, for that matter."

It's not all gravy. There's a constant IT balancing act between improving performance and managing the day-to-day realities of an "office" where people melt down hundreds of pounds of metal, among other job duties. You thought your user community was tough? Try employees working with hot liquid steel.

"Some of our challenges are getting the technology out to the floor and making it usable for the end user, the people that are actually pouring the steel, pouring the iron, working on the line, whatever it may be," Sweet said. As a result, you'll see large-screen displays on the floor, thin clients tailored for harsh work environments, and the like.The developers behind Bremen's ERP system worked closely with Bremen to develop specific user interfaces and other features for positions on the production line, for instance. IT also recently began using Citrix's GoToAssist to provide real-time support to users on the plant floor.

The same holds true for Bremen's nationally distributed sales force. "This helps us reach out to those clients without 'sneakernetting' it out to the individual users and going out into the environment," Sweet said. "Every minute helps when you're dealing with this environment."

It helps, too, when you can generate multiple benefits from the same investments. Large monitors, for example, aren't just a good fit for the foundry floor. They're also productivity and efficiency drivers. Similar screens are posted in all common areas, displaying data and workflows from the ERP system to keep everyone informed of production scheduling, upcoming jobs and tracking how well teams are doing on particular jobs. "Everyone sees those numbers, so it also adds to accountability throughout the entire infrastructure," Sweet said.

Not everyone gets to work for owners and executives who "get it" when it comes to IT. But that doesn't mean you can't stay ahead of the curve rather than constantly playing catch-up or the patch-and-maintenance game. For Bremen, IT strategy is an ongoing process, not a large, long-term project followed by stasis until it's time for the next major tech refresh. "We're always looking for new and improved ways to complete our business processes and workflow," Sweet said.

The Bremen team also completes significant research before deploying new technologies. This minimizes unpleasant surprises and headaches; Sweet said Bremen hasn't had any IT projects roll out in the last couple of years that he would call a failure. "Do your research," Sweet advised. "Talk to other people that have already implemented the technology."

Given its ongoing approach to IT projects, the team works closely with end users to minimize disruption, offer training, and solicit feedback. That cuts down on the grumbling on deployment day, among other upsides.

"We have regular meetings, lunch-and-learns, send out training videos, links to YouTube videos -- we do whatever it takes to get information out to the end users," Sweet explained. "It's very important that they don't become stagnant as well. You keep them in a mode of constant learning, constant change, and the users tend to be a lot more receptive."

In other words, Bremen doesn't do anything simply because it's the way it's always been done. "What works for you today might not work for you tomorrow. You always have to keep an open mind," Sweet said. "That's the biggest hurdle that most companies have to get over: They keep using something out of habit and that's just not going to work in today's world."

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